In the 1950s, Princeton was an old boys club, where women students were unthinkable. But in the following decade women gained access to all kinds of institutions, and even a bastion of privilege like Princeton was forced to reckon with change. By the end of the 1960s, the university had admitted its first female undergraduates.
The “No Girls Allowed” policy didn’t go away without a fight. In her book, “Keep the Damned Women Out: The Struggle for Coeducation,” Princeton history professor Nancy Weiss Malkiel describes how women gained access to Princeton and other elite schools worldwide. Malkiel is not only a chronicler of history, but also an original source: she joined the Princeton faculty in 1969, the year women undergraduates were first admitted.
Malkiel will speak at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce meeting on Thursday, September 7, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Princeton Marriott. Tickets are $75, $50 for members. For more information, visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
Malkiel’s book describes how change came slowly throughout the 1960s. The first woman to break into the ivory tower was Sabra Follett Meservey, the wife of a Princeton Plasma Physics Lab nuclear physicist. In 1960 Meservey was admitted to a graduate program in Turkish history, and other female graduate students soon followed.
Undergraduate women got their feet in the door in 1963, first as participants in a special “critical languages program,” designed to bring female students to the university. There were just five women among the so-called “critters” in the first year, and they faced a cold reception from male Princeton students. One student told the Daily Princetonian: “It disgusts me to be in competition with girls. If I had wanted to go to classes with girls, I would have gone to Stanford.”
Princeton’s leadership, however, came to realize that co-education was inevitable. Malkiel’s book describes how Robert F. Goheen, Princeton’s president at the time, made the decision to allow women students on campus:
‘The Damned Women’
by Nancy Weiss Malkiel
Goheen’s views about Princeton and coeducation were also evolving under the influence of the powerful new advocate joining him in Nassau Hall. In the spring of 1966, Goheen invited the labor economist William G. Bowen to become the university’s first full-time provost, effective in July, 1967. Bowen was a Princeton Ph.D. who had joined the faculty in 1958 as an assistant professor of economics. He had been promoted to associate professor in 1961 and to professor of economics and public affairs in 1965. Since 1964 he had been directing the graduate program in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Bowen’s position on coeducation was clear: Princeton needed to admit women undergraduates, and needed to do it sooner rather than later, or the university would risk becoming an educational anachronism. Bowen himself had been an undergraduate at Denison University, and he knew about coeducation from personal experience. But he also had a clear-eyed view of Princeton: It had to become coeducational to remain a great university, to retain excellent faculty and attract excellent students. Bowen told Goheen that he “wasn’t sure it was workable to have someone in the provost position … who was known to have such a different view on the very sensitive … issue of co-education.” Goheen responded, “You should do your best to persuade me and … I’ll do my best to persuade you and we’ll just see how it comes out.” Bowen recalled that he smiled and said, “Bob, if I just give up on you I can always quit.”
The second influence on Goheen’s evolving views about co-education came from students. In January, 1965, the Daily Princetonian published a long article by James M. Markham ’65 diagnosing in detail the “social illness” that resulted at Princeton from the absence of easy interaction with women.
Demonstrating in compelling detail that Princeton students were miserably unhappy, Markham argued for “a sister college across the lake” to remedy the glaring deficiencies in undergraduate social life. The official reaction to Markham’s piece was strongly negative. The dean of the faculty, J. Douglas Brown ’19, accused the Princetonian of having “‘grossly exaggerated’ the problem ‘in order to make an issue.’”
History professor Joseph R. Strayer ’26 said, “Things would be a lot healthier around here if you guys didn’t complain so much.” And Goheen himself declared that Princeton did not have “any ‘social’ problems that coeducation would cure.” Coeducation was “the solution for Princeton’s social illness,” the Princetonian retorted. The issue was not simply related to social life. “There is good reason to believe,” the newspaper said, “that the development of a young man’s mind is . . . enhanced by normal contact with women.”
Goheen commented that “coeducation would solve some problems, but it would also create many.”
The Markham piece got Goheen’s attention. As he said later, “When thoughtful students like Jim Markham needled me, I began to think about it. Before that, coeducation was an aberration, a whacky idea to kick around.” But Goheen was still not ready to address the subject. In December, 1966, in a conversation to mark the 10th year of his presidency, he said, “In the best of all possible worlds, there would be a good coordinate college for women nearby … but it doesn’t seem to me or the trustees that we should divert substantial resources at this point to accommodate a lot of nice young ladies, brilliant though they may be.”
Still, the world was changing around Goheen, and he understood that Princeton would have to change with it. On May 17, 1967, the Daily Princetonian carried a front-page story with the banner headline: “Goheen: Coeducation Is Inevitable.” The reporter, Robert K. Durkee ’69 (now the university’s vice president and secretary) quoted Goheen: “It is inevitable that, at some point in the future, Princeton is going to move into the education of women. The only questions now are those of strategy, priority, and timing.” The principal motivation, the president observed, “won’t and shouldn’t be that Princeton’s social life is warped. This is certainly one consideration, but a greater consideration is what Princeton could offer to women in higher educational opportunity and what women could bring to the intellectual and the entire life of Princeton.” Speaking personally, he said, he was “persuaded that in mixed classes you get a fuller range of sensitivities and points of view than when girls or boys study alone.” The administration, he said, was committed to studying the situation with care. The course ahead was one of “gradualism — full discussion yet with some degree of urgency.”
The next day the New York Times repeated the Princetonian’s account. Goheen had never intended to make any such announcement. He had imagined that he was having a wide-ranging, off-the-record conversation as background for a series of articles about student life scheduled for publication in the fall. It had not occurred to him to exact a promise from Durkee not to publish without his approval.”
The public announcement of the inevitability of coeducation was embarrassing to Goheen because it appeared before the trustees could formally consider the question. Nonetheless, the trustees had been expecting to address the subject at their June meeting, and Goheen had planned to ask the board to authorize “a serious, systematic study of the options.” He had been preparing the trustees for the conversation, and the board was well aware of his views. In January he had reported that Yale was engaged in an effort to persuade Vassar to move to New Haven. That news, he said, should give the board “food for serious thought, since Princeton in a few years might find itself the only major university not significantly engaged in the education of women.”
Goheen had raised the question of the feasibility of Princeton “remain[ing] alone in not providing the educational experience that many young women are asking for today,” and he had underscored his concern about remaining competitive with Harvard and Yale in admissions if Princeton were to remain “monastic.”
The competitive issue was a serious concern. Princeton’s acting director of admission, John T. Osander ’57, who would be named director at the January board meeting, had that same week corroborated Goheen’s view. As Osander told the Daily Princetonian, Princeton “‘would definitely suffer’ in competition with Yale if the proposal to move Vassar to New Haven were carried out.” Students admitted to both Princeton and Yale had typically been divided about evenly in the choices they made about where to enroll; if Vassar were to affiliate with Yale, Osander predicted, it would “tip the balance in favor of Yale.” Osander noted, too, that a “large number of students . . . reject Princeton acceptances because of the better social life at other schools.”
Harvard was a case in point. As Jerome Karabel has pointed out, Princeton’s standing relative to Harvard was on the decline: “In 1955 Harvard lost 85 students to Princeton; by 1965 the number had dropped to 32. Meanwhile, 124 students admitted to both … [schools] chose Harvard — a ratio of almost 4 men to 1.
Overall, Harvard’s yield rate in 1965 was 86 percent; Princeton’s was a comparatively weak 68 percent. Yet just 10 years earlier, Princeton had enjoyed a slight edge in overall yield: 62 vs. 61 percent. Osander’s predecessor, E. Alden Dunham II ’53, who had left the admission office in July, 1966, to join the Carnegie Corporation, told the Princetonian in January, 1967, that some three quarters of the students admitted to both Harvard and Princeton typically chose to go to Cambridge.
Goheen and the trustees agreed to begin a serious discussion of coeducation at the June 1967 board meeting.